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Difficult games are on a rise thanks to, in no small part, the popularity of FromSoftware’s modern game output. The Soulsborne games, as well a recent Sekiro awakened the love for brutal challenge in gaming community. Many games followed suit, eager to draw in the subset of gamers who hold challenge above any other features.
To be on this list, your game is not just supposed to be difficult. To have a spot here, the game has to be unfair. Not in the sense of being broken, It has to deliberately go out of its way to cause you pain. We will not be including any competitive games, because any game can be difficult when a living person is trying to ruin your day.
Paradox games in general are exceedingly uncommunicative and obscure. They’re not so much difficult as confusing. Learning them can take months or even years and when you finally “get it”, it’s like riding a bicycle, it works on a level of pure intuition. But then of course you find out there are people who do bike stunts for a living and your perception is shattered. That’s some good pain right there.
Crusader Kings II is special among Paradox games, because it’s not even really about strategy. See, in this game, you won’t so much control your armies, steer your economy, or develop science or culture, you’ll be leading a bloodline of rulers through the ages as you marry into other lineages and strive to achieve status through family ties. It’s very Game of Thrones-y. And much like in Game of Thrones, a lot of things can happen in the background. Assassinations, sudden sicknesses, unsavoury religious conversions, mutilation and yes, incest, all of it is here. Your son may start worshipping Satan, your brother will betray you, you yourself can develop a nasty infection and probably die. All almost completely randomly and with little warning.
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XCOM 2 is an heir to a legacy dating back to Julian Gollop’s UFO: Enemy Unknown strategy. And although graphics have changed a lot, and Firaxis’ version has much less fiddly bits like inventory management, they retain one thing: RNG just hates you.
See, X-COM games are turn-based, barring The Bureau, which was weird, and are happy to tell you the percent chance of scoring a hit. The problem is: it doesn’t matter squat, because humans can’t understand chances. In new XCOMs the results are generated from a seed, which mean that save scumming doesn’t help you, unless you somehow change the parameters (moving two tiles closer counts). It still leads to situations where a seemingly point blank shot has only 74% of success, and you apparently consistently miss 95% shots. That’s XCOM, baby.
And that’s just the tactical map. On strategic level you hunt down UFOs, manage construction of new facilities, all of which takes time which you don’t have a lot of, because the aliens kind of have their own thing going on, and the more time you spend idle, the smaller your chances of ultimate victory are. Good luck, commander.
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Devil May Cry series certainly made quite a stir for a Resident Evil spin-off. Not least because they effectively created to spectacle slasher genre, which later gave us gems like God of War or Bayonetta. Fast, demanding, flashy, irreverent. And DMC3 remains one of the best in the genre.
From the first cutscene to the last Dante’s Awakening is a no-holds-barred, lighting fast slasher, measuring not just your damage, but more importantly: the style.
You can muddle through the game on a basic combo, but why do that when you can throw an enemy into the air with a swing of Rebellion, juggle them for a while with Ebony and Ivory’s bullets, jump to the air to deliver several swings with the Cerberus, and then slam the hapless enemy into the ground with another slash of Rebellion. And that’s beginner’s stuff.
It’s really easy to die, because the demons you fight can make short work of your health bar if you let them. The buggers are quite fast, too, so you have to stay on your toes. And then there are bosses putting to test everything you’ve learned, and mercilessly slapping you on the wrist if you get a sequence wrong.
There is an Easy mode, unlocked when you die too often in a short bit of gameplay, and an Automatic mode which basically performs combos for you. On the other hand there is Dante Must Die mode where demons get an absurd boost in power (and you don’t) and Heaven or Hell, where everything, including you, dies in one hit. Doing awesome stuff in DCM 3 feels great, because it’s HARD. And then there are honestly absurd higher difficulties. Before gaming had Dark Souls, we had DMC.
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Here’s a series with a long story of making people ragequit since 1988 when it came to arcades and NES. After a nearly decade-long hiatus since 1995 it came back with a vengeance, bringing back the twitch reflexes and perfect combos.
Honestly, there is no consensus on which game: DMC or NG, is better or more difficult, so we’ve decided to honour the seniority with a higher placement.
Ninja Gaiden depicts the exploits of one Ryu Hayabusa, probably the worst ninja in history, but a deadly warrior all the same. There is a massive number of techniques to utilize, and all of them are useful in different situations, so it’s not like you can just mash B and be fine. At times it can feel like a fighting game more than a slasher, but that only emphasizes the importance of picking the proper technique to defeat Hayabusa’s foes.
Arcade-era NG is stuff of legends, though the new ones aren’t bad either.
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Created with limited oversight from Hidetaka Miyazaki, Dark Souls II makes very questionable choices in the most basic of mechanics (like movement) just to make the game more difficult and, sure it succeeds!
Beating Scholar of the First Sin is not beating your own limitations, like it would be with, say, Dark Souls 3, it’s about beating a game which was designed to be unbeatable. Very much unlike the tough-but-fair other entries in the series.
source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0GxBZcVmHc (Bandai Namco Entertainment America, Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin – Announcement Trailer)
If there’s one thing I can give you as an advice if you’re still determined, it’s this: Adaptability is a trap. Put no points in it, pump everything into Strength. Trust me, the internet will tell you otherwise, but they’re liars, it’s an old in-joke in the community to try and trick new players.
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FromSoftware’s 2019 release turned out to be difficult even to Dark Souls and Bloodborne veterans. Part of it comes from the fact that it forced them to abandon the instincts and reflexes bashed into them by Soulsbornes. Oh, and of course the game defeated many a non-Souls player, because it is quite demanding, and in a way that’s not going to resonate with many people.
source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OgoTZXPACo (Gamespot, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – Official Trailer | E3 2018)
See, Sekiro somehow managed to put more emphasis both on the offence and on the defence. Its combat system is based on a meter called Posture. It’s filled when you attack your enemy and when you perfectly parry their own attacks. When it’s full, it means you’ve forced an opening on your foe and can perform a deathblow. While not really demanding frame-perfect precision that fighting games do, it’s very easy to be overwhelmed and miss a parry or misjudge a dodge. And the enemies don’t play around.
Sekiro : Shadows Die Twice - GOTY Steam Gift NORTH AMERICA
It’s a brutal and unforgiving game, but much like the Dark Souls series, it’s absolutely something you can master. There’re different playstyles, with varying degree of difficulty to them, so you can try to breeze through the game. It will never be a cakewalk, but feel free to prove that to yourself.
Due to the procedural generation of the world, the game can throw some curve-balls at you that will seem absolutely unfair. But because certain locations are predetermined (like bosses), you’ll never get lucky enough to get an easy run. Frustrating? Yes. Unfair? Absolutely. Intensely rewarding? You bet.
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Don’t Starve is both charming, in how honest and straight forward about how much it hates you it is, and very morbid, due to the fact that… it absolutely hates you. Don’t Starve certainly doesn’t pull any punches and much like Crusader Kings, it’s more about figuring out the rules than anything else.
Due to the randomness inherent in generating a new world, the game can be absolutely and completely unfair without giving you any chance of victory. The devs attempted to dial some of that down and the community, primarily on Steam was very angry about it, so the devs rolled some of it back. Essentially, it’s a game for virtual masochists. A semi-sequel was released, Don’t Starve Together, which lets you play in coop. Which makes it a lot nicer and potentially much funnier.
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Hollow Knight is fairly similar to Dead Cells, with the only mechanical difference being that Hollow Knight is not procedurally generated, all of the game’s world was designed from start to finish, and drawn quite beautifully.
And that arguably provides a much more “structured” experience, so to speak. Much like in Dark Souls the environment is a puzzle in and of itself. There’s a moment, very early on in the game, where you get dropped down from a very high ledge and have to find a way back, learning various mechanics in the process. Hollow Knight will repeatedly test your resolve (by being unfair) and your skill (with wonky controls, grab a controller by the way) all the while drip-feeding you bits of lore and story.
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This game is roughly divided into two sections, run-and-gun platforming segments in the overworld and boss-fights. While the run-and-gun segments are much easier than the now-famous Cuphead boss-fights, there’s a way to make them even more painful for yourself, which is striving for the Pacifist mark, awarded if you complete the stage without scoring a single hit on an enemy.
And the boss-fights themselves as an absolute treat. Varied, complex and complicated, few of them are forgettable and the game does this wonderful thing where it will show you exactly how close you were to victory after each attempt. And as the goal gets closer and closer, the rage raises and rises and rises…
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Super Meat Boy came out of the blue in 2010 and quickly became a hit, because of finding a perfect balance between being absurdly difficult, weirdly cute (in the Adult Swim/Weebl/Happy Tree Friends kind of way), and not really giving a single eff about you dying dozens of times. You’ll succeed one day, that’s all that matters.
SMB even gave us a useful, if gruesome (gruesful?), learning tool in the form of blood splatters everywhere the protagonist met his brutal end. Now you KNOW where not to jump, and what to watch out for. Although from the character’s point of view he must feel as if he’s in an unending loop of pain and suffering. Dying and being reborn endlessly because a certain someone has crooked fingers and can’t aim a jump properly! With that in mind the cheerful smile and shine in the eyes of Meat Boy may be a mere facade for the existential dread.
Regardless, you’ll enjoy every minute of Super Meat Boy even if you’ll eventually paint the rooms red with trial and error.
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Riding a bike is easy, people say with some merit. Once you figure out how to keep your balance everything clicks into place soon after that. The Trials franchise doesn’t care. Trials is an exercise in a physics-based torment posing as an obstacle course, and the torturer is a bike rider (without license, I’m sure) who needs to get from point A to point B without falling flat on his face and in good time.
Even when you get used to the controls, your so-far perfect run may be finished because you messed a single jump and the physics simulation never allowed you to recover, throwing you into a downward spiral towards failure and restarting the track. Or maybe not. But Trials is the kind of game where the more frustrated you get, the harder it is to move on.
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Ok, Soulsborne, DMC, Ninja Gaiden, Roguelike, all are just the training wheels on the bicycle of pain on the road to hell called Getting Over It with Bennet Foddy.
The game was created by the man who came up with QWOP, GIRP, and CLOP and that probably tells you what to expect. Getting Over It isn’t content with just giving you weird control scheme and a task with breaks the laws of physics and minds of man. No. It’s going to provide a serene commentary, speaking to you as if to a child, or cite Lincoln and Lewis and not even once give references, so you know they really said these things.
Quite honestly, GOI turns frustrating the player into an art form, because you ALWAYS know you were JUST there, just a millimetre to the left and… godsdamnit, you’re back to square one. And then you try again. And again. And again. And again, cursing the calm voice of a man speaking to you. Your character can’t die because falling does nothing to your pot of invulnerability, but you slowly die inside only to feel rejuvenated for a while before a small mistake sends you down the vortex of doubt and sorrow.
But you get over it. Even if you don’t get over that one damned tree…
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With a growing demand for difficult, complicated, and downright unfair games is rising, so we can expect more and more such titles to come out in the future. There’s for example the upcoming FromSoftware game Elden Ring, for which George R.R. Martin developed the setting.
Still, if challenge is what you crave, this list should provide enough of it to start you on your path to git gud or tide you over until the next challenging game if you’ve already gitten gud.